Dr. Stephen Sears, State Epidemiologist
Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Raw milk consumption is common in Maine. Raw milk advocates claim it is better for you than pasteurized milk but public health advocates and the facts say “no.” The internet and other sources of information seem to be proliferating myths about pasteurization. However, this 100+ year old process is really nothing more than a life-saving, brief heating of raw products such as milk and cider. The raw-versus-pasteurized milk debate pits the alleged health benefits of consuming raw milk against the disease threat of unpasteurized milk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and many other worldwide health agencies investigate disease outbreaks associated with raw milk and warn that the bacteria occasionally found in raw milk make it unsafe to consume. On the other hand, raw milk proponents claim that raw milk has health benefits that are destroyed in the pasteurization process; they claim that raw milk can be produced hygienically. The FDA, CDC and many others have shown:
Pasteurization DOES NOT reduce milk’s nutritional value.Pasteurizing milk DOES NOT cause lactose intolerance and allergic reactions.
(Both raw milk and pasteurized milk can cause allergic reactions in people sensitive to milk proteins.)
Pasteurization kills dangerous pathogens. Raw milk DOES NOT.Pasteurization DOES save lives.
The risks from raw milk in the United States are different today that they were before the 1930s when raw milk caused 25% of all food and waterborne outbreaks and resulted in significant morbidity and mortality. Two common diseases from raw milk during that period were bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Fortunately, today cattle are virtually free from these diseases because of programs to vaccinate and eliminate sick animals. However, other diseases have become more common. The present-day illnesses associated with raw milk include Campylobacter, E.coli, Salmonella and Listeria. In people, the symptoms of these infections range from severe diarrhea and vomiting to serious kidney damage and Guillain-Barre syndrome.
In the 21st Century, dairy products now cause approximately 1% of reported foodborne outbreaks, but about 70% of dairy outbreaks are from raw milk or raw milk products such as cheese. Despite improvements over the last 100 years, consuming raw milk is still risky because the dairy environment is difficult to keep clean. Large animals produce large amounts of fecal material. Even with careful sanitation, it is nearly impossible to keep all dirt and fecal matter from getting into the milk. In addition, some cows might have udder infections that are not obvious to the dairy operator, but can result in bacteria getting into the milk. Pasteurization is the only scientifically proven way to ensure that disease-causing germs are eliminated from the milk that is sold to consumers.
In Maine, it is legal to sell raw milk for human consumption. Maine is one of the 29 states that does allow some form of on-or off-farm raw milk sales but only if the farm has been licensed by the Department of Agriculture. Nonetheless, from a public health perspective, raw milk, no matter how carefully produced, may be unsafe. According to the CDC, between 1998 and 2008, there were 1614 reported illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and 2 deaths attributed to raw milk consumption in the United States. So got milk? —absolutely—as long as it is pasteurized.